More than 21,000 people from all over the United States and beyond flooded into Oklahoma City on Sept. 23, 2017. A native son, Father Stanley Francis Rother, was being beatified right in his home archdiocese. I was there because I knew him. We worked in the Sololá Diocese in Guatemala in neighboring parishes 37 years ago.
Beatification is the step before a person is officially named saint, a title given by the Catholic Church that says, “This person’s life is worth imitating.”
“Beatifications are almost always in Rome,” one young woman from Texas said to me. “When I learned Father Stan’s beatification would be here, I had to come. He was awesome.” Over the centuries, innumerable people have lived lives worthy of imitation, yet just a few have been singled out publicly as role models. Quiet, charitable, courageous, awesome, Father Stan is one of those few.
Stan was an Oklahoma farm boy whose call to serve as a priest took him beyond Oklahoma, beyond the United States, to the Central American country of Guatemala, where his Oklahoma City Archdiocese staffed the mission parish of Santiago Apóstol. In a nation smaller than Oklahoma, the parish consisted of a pair of towns, Santiago Atitlán and Cerro de Oro, nestled at the base of two volcanoes on the shores of Lake Atitlán. Tzutujil, the Mayan language spoken by impoverished Indians there, is spoken nowhere else. For Stan the beauty of the setting and the colorful traditional dress of the people contrasted achingly with their poverty.
Christlike, he gave them his compassion, his friendship and his love. He learned not only Spanish, Guatemala’s official language, but also Tzutujil. He promoted the translation of the New Testament and the liturgy into Tzutujil. For the first time in their lives, the parishioners actually understood the Gospels and knew what the priest was saying at Mass. He shared his knowledge and skill as a farmer and his knack for fixing anything. He established a parish school as well as a small hospital. He helped form weaving and savings cooperatives and fostered a parish radio station that broadcast literacy classes, agricultural tips and religious programs to the many villages on the lakeshore.
Guatemala’s decades-long civil war reached its peak in the 1980s with thousands of Catholic Church workers, both lay and religious, targeted for elimination. Why? Because their efforts to improve the lives and defend the rights of the poor, exactly what Stan was doing, were beginning to change the status quo. Branding such activity as communist, the governing class and the military rained terror and death on people involved in it. When a detachment of soldiers moved into the town saying they came to protect the people, Stan asked their commander why so many people were “disappearing” since their arrival. Such questions could have lethal consequences.
Stan sheltered those hiding from death squads, cared for widows and orphans of the murdered and searched for bodies of the missing. In early 1981, warned he was on a death list, Stan returned to the United States to discern and say his goodbyes. He told his bishop, “The pastor cannot run at the first sign of danger and leave his flock defenseless.” Stan was not naïve, nor fearless; he was committed and courageous. So, like Jesus who “resolutely set his face for Jerusalem” knowing what awaited him, Stan returned to his parish. On July 28, 1981, at the age of 46, he was assassinated. Stan was not the first nor the last priest to be martyred in Guatemala, but as his people themselves said, he was “our priest.”
Outside the Cox Convention Center in Oklahoma I saw school children and people in wheelchairs, people from Mexico, and Native Americans dancing to pounding drums. There were so many buses disgorging passengers that some said there were no more buses available in all of Oklahoma. When no more people could fit in the 17,000-seat convention center, the overflow crowd of 4,000 was directed to other venues equipped with sound and enormous screens.
Inside the center, I sat with other religious, including some from Guatemala who had worked with Father Stan. About the ceremony, the fanfare and the official declarations by bishops and dignitaries, Stan’s sister Marita Rother, a sister of the Adorers of the Blood of Christ, commented, “Stan would have said, ‘What’s all the fuss about?’ ”
Since Catholics are a mere 8 percent of Oklahoma’s population, many of the bus drivers were not sure what the fuss was about. One said, “An awful lot of people are coming to this beautification. And I thought, “That’s right; that’s a good way to explain this event; it’s the beautification of the Catholic Church by Stanley Francis Rother, priest and martyr.
Featured Image: Crowds jam Oklahoma City’s Cox Convention Center holding images of local priest about to be beatified. (CNS/S. Sisney/Oklahoma City Archdiocese)